Tagged: inspiration

Author Interview: James Phelan

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In my time at writing and literary events, I’ve had opportunity to meet a lot of authors. Most of them are pretty quiet, all of them have been pretty nice, normal people, but a couple have become genuine close friends. It’s great to have a few writer friends, some people who know what it’s like to commit yourself to such a solitary act. It’s also great to have them to bounce ideas off, talk about your frustrations or concerns, just share with folk who’ve gone through a lot of the same things.

One of those people, for me, is James Phelan. I met James at the Newcastle Writers Fesitval in 2006 and we hit it off straight away. What’s always been really interesting for me is James writes in a completely different style to what I do. James’ novels are action/thrillers, and I’ve never been able to get into them. But hearing such a difference perspective on writing and the writing/publishing process has always fascinated me. James is the guy I go to when I need to ramble about writing and the challenges I’m having, the guy I seek out if I don’t know how this or that works in the industry. He’s also a close friend whose always been willing to listen to my ramblings.

I asked James to answer a few questions on writing and his writing process:

When did you decide to pursue a career as a writer?

I was 15 when I knew I wanted to be a novelist but I thought you had to be an old dude to do it. So, I figured I’d give it a try when I retired from a “real job”. I studied architecture and worked for a couple of firms, and by 20 I knew that I had to give writing a serious try. I wrote my first novel by 21, got a job at a newspaper, did an MA and PhD in Lit, and had my first novel published published at 25.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being a full-time writer?

Deciding what to do next. I’ve written series for adults, young adults, and kids, and each has its pros and cons. The adult stuff has complete freedom, YA slightly less so, and the kids stuff has a whole bunch of things that the publishers tell me I can’t do or say on the page. The YA and kids stuff involves way more PR, on average a day per week, and while that’s great in terms of meeting enthusiastic readers, it sucks time away from writing. Publishing books for adults is more about Crystal, Maybachs, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes… you know the rest. Publishing books for kids sells about 10x more.

What’s the key to ongoing success?

Working hard. It’s easy for a writer to procrastinate, and there’s creative merit in that, sure. I write every day, starting early in the cafe nearby. Depending on which stage of writing I’m at, I’ll be sitting with my notebook or laptop or print out. Every day. That’s the writing side. The business side – you need good agents (and an accountant) who you trust will give you good advice when you need it, look over your contracts, and support you through the process.

Best tip for keeping ideas flowing and avoiding/beating writers’ block?

It’s my belief that if you write every day you’ll keep things moving along. That, and knowing your ending. Whether I’m writing a short story or a 40,000 word novel for kids or 90,000 for adults, I always know how I want my ending to play out. Not so much beat for beat, but in my ending I need to know the feeling that I want to create in the reader, be it comedic, dramatic, tragic etc. Usually by the time I write the ending, it will play out different to how I envisaged, but that value will stay always the same, and by knowing where I was going I managed to get there. I’ve been a full-time novelist since 2007, and it’s all about working hard.

Best tip for writers starting out?

Don’t ever sign a 13 book deal. Only recently have I finished all my contracts, and the freedom is incredible. So, enjoy your freedom, while it lasts. Write what you want to write. Make it shine through revisions, then decide what you’re going to do with it. I still think that agents are worth their commission, so get one of those. How? By getting published. How do you get published? By having an agent, or already being published. I know, right? Oh, and don’t forget to read as much as you can and as broadly as you can. Good luck.

[Note: Not everyone’s as luck to be offered a 13 book deal, and I’m sure most would jump at the chance, but as noted by James, it can be double-edged]

James Phelan’s latest adult thriller is ‘The Spy‘, and the first books of his YA series ‘The Last Thirteen‘ are also available now. He’s also on Twitter.

Also, this punch really hurt him.

Moments before tears were shed

The Best Films of 2014 (So Far…)

I’ve been catching up on some films recently, and got into a stretch of great ones that I wanted to share. So rather than write individual posts for each, with us now at the midway point of the year, it’s a good time to go over the best films I’ve seen, thus far, in 2014. Some of them I’ve already written about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but here’s my top five from the last 6 months:

Enemy

There’s so much I could say about this film, so much I’d love to go on about, but it’s one of those ones you’re best not knowing anything about going in. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (whose previous film ‘Prisoners’ was on my ‘Best of 2013’ list), Enemy is a lesson in film-making. Everything about it is precisely placed and planned, everything is deliberate. All I can say about Enemy is the film you’re watching is not the film you think it is. It’ll make sense in the end. Probably.

Under the Skin

Another one I’d love to go on about for pages and pages. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Under the Skin starts off with a woman (Scarlett Johansson) driving around Scotland in a large, white van, looking for directions. But then she’s looking for something else, a phone, a different road. Then you realise, she’s not looking for directions at all, she’s trying to lure each man she speaks to into the van. From there, she seduces them, then takes them to abandoned buildings. What happens next, in terms of the way it’s shot, the set design, the music, is mesmerising, and so great, and the story leads on from there. Under the Skin is based on a novel by Michel Faber – though it’s a loose adaptation, major sequences and plotlines are altered from the book. It’s a great example of restraint, of allowing the plot to develop on its own, combined with some amazing visual elements. A great, great film, one I’ll no doubt be watching over and over.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I already geeked out over X-Men: Days of Future Past in a previous post, so I won’t go on about it again. For me, this is the ultimate superhero film – of all the ones that have come before it, X-Men: Days of Future Past has the strongest combination of amazing visual effects, solid story and deep characters (in superhero film terms, at least). People will praise Chris Nolan’s Batman films or Joss Whedon’s Avengers as the best superhero films, and to some degree, it depends on which comics you grew up with. For me, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best – it sticks to the real roots of the comics, it brings characters to life you never thought possible and it all just looks so great, no expense is spared on the detail.

Blue Ruin

I came across this film recently, one I hadn’t heard a heap about. Blue Ruin is the story of a broken man who returns to his home town to enact revenge, and the consequences of his actions then spiral further and further out of control. Blue Ruin pulled me in pretty quick and I had to know how it all ended. It’s well acted (by relative unknowns) and plotted and, most importantly, it moves. The story pushes ahead at such a pace, remaining compelling and engaging throughout – it’s a good lesson in plot development and raising the stakes to sustain engagement. It’s an intriguing, violent film, but one that’s well worth seeing.

About Time

This one sort of crept up on me. We watched About Time, essentially, because I thought my wife would like it – she’s into romantic films, The Notebook being her favourite, and this has McAdams in it and it’s by the guy who made Love Actually – it has all the makings of a film she’d love. But I actually really liked it. It’s got depth and heart, a reflective element to it, which is normally non-existent in romantic dramas which play out the obvious notes. About Time is about a guy who can travel back in time. Not anywhere he wants though, only back to places he’s been and experiences he’s lived – like, if he embarrassed himself the first time he spoke to a girl, he can go back and change it. That sounds really amazing, right, and slightly difficult for a film (how do you create tension in a scene when the audience knows he can just re-do it?), but it actually moves in a direction I didn’t expect and ends up being an interesting reflection on life and how we approach it. About Time isn’t going to go down as an artistic masterpiece, but it raises really interesting questions, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

So there they are, my top films of 2014 (so far). In terms of writing, all of these films have great written elements, great plot development points that are worth taking note of. I really loved that most of them went places I didn’t expect, opening my thinking to other angles in my own plot development efforts. It’s like when you read a great book and it opens up all these possibilities in your mind and then you get that electricity, that momentum that compels you to just get writing. All these films had elements of that for me, all triggered ideas and tangents, new perspectives and elements I could consider. Each one got me thinking – especially the first two on this list – and anything that gives your creative mind a kick is worth taking a couple hours out of your day for. If you’re looking for inspiration, seeking out a great film is always a worthy avenue to try.

 

 

Film Review: Enemy

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I have to restrain myself in talking about Dennis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’ because… it’s quite possibly my favourite film of all time. That’s a big call to make, and as soon as you do make it, people will scrutinize the film in a different way and instinctively try to tear it down, moreso than they would if you’d just said ‘yeah. It’s good’. Not that I don’t think the film holds up, but I hesitate only because I want everyone to see this film and experience it for all it is. Enemy is so well made, so well done and so amazing – it’s something that you need to let yourself be absorbed into.

Every element of Enemy has been planned to the nth degree. Every scene, background to foreground, is deliberate, all the pieces fit perfectly into where they should be. What might seem like nothing is actually carefully positioned to achieve best effect and the cinematography perfectly captures the feel of the film. The performances are great, and the way the story builds and shifts drags you further and further into the rabbit-hole-type story. Some have criticised the film’s heavy handed use of metaphor, but I think it’s exactly what it needs, at exactly the right times, in order to let you know there’s more happening than what you see. I can’t talk about the story, but I will say that it expands a whole different way of viewing it, outside of the film itself.

Enemy is exactly what I look for in a film. It’s storyline is intriguing, the film construction is thorough and it has an extra layer to it that forces the viewer to think about its meaning and subtext. It’s more than the sum of its parts, and while it won’t work for everyone, it was definitely one of my favourite viewing experiences of all time. Writers, in particular, can learn a lot from the story’s clever construction.

See it.

 

How Would You Write if the End Result Didn’t Matter?

Basketball

It’s amazing how much state of mind plays in success. I’ve been playing basketball since I was fifteen, still play a couple of times a week (I’m now 34) and I was talking with a team-mate recently, saying how we play so much better in training than we do in our actual games. Why would that be? The reason is because we approach them differently – in training, we’re playing with mates, guys we’ve played with and against for years and we’re comfortable around. If we win a training match, great, if not, no one cares, so we’re much more likely to take shots we’d think twice about in a real game, much more relaxed, and this, generally, means we play better. Because we’re not over-thinking the importance of making the play or how to beat this or that defender. In training, we’re relying more on instinct, and we’ve been doing it for such a long time that our instincts are pretty good.

The difference between practice and game is totally in our own heads. The opponents we play against aren’t better than the guys we train with, but in our heads, we put more emphasis on it, we get more caught up in doing the right things and not making mistakes. We stress, and that stress makes us tighter, makes us think that little bit too much about the process rather than just allowing ourselves to do it, and we make more mistakes because we get caught up in the detail. We make the situation more difficult for ourselves because of our own self-doubt and mentality. There’s no actual difference in the physical process.

I’ve heard sports stars say this over the years when talking about the difference between the highest levels and the lesser ranks. They always say the psychology is what you have to master, the approach. For a long time I didn’t understand it, but in recent years I’ve come to realise what they mean. There’s a famous quote from Henry Ford which goes: ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right’. That pretty much sums it up – if you go out on the court and you think you’re going to get beat or you’re going to play bad, you’re probably going to. If you take to the floor and you’re getting caught up in who your opposition is and stressing over what might happen, you’re starting off on the back foot. You need to be able to change you’re thinking on it, relax yourself, even enjoy playing the game. You need to think ‘how would I play in practice?’, ‘How would I feel right now if the opposition were all guys I know?’ You need to think: ‘How would I play if the end result didn’t matter?’ If you can change your mindset, you can allow your instincts to take over – that’s what the big name sports stars are able to do. Despite the crowds and the money and the expectation lumped on their backs – the best players are able to block it all out and play just like they did on the schoolyard, just like they would any other time. In doing this, they allow themselves to maximise their natural instincts and abilities.

So why the long sports analogy on a writing blog? Well, the next tangent I thought of is how this also relates to my writing. As writers, we often put too much pressure on ourselves, always thinking this isn’t good enough, or we get caught thinking ourselves round in circles trying to work out the best way to explain certain elements or details. Just as in sports, we’d often do better to trust our instincts and rely on the skills and knowledge we’ve developed – you know you can write, you know you can do this, so why are you being held up? Why can’t you get it out the way you want? Just like Michael Jordan, with thousands of fans screaming on all sides, would rise up and take the shot, same as he’s done for years and years, you can write, free of what others might think, clear of expectation and self-doubt.

Some people talk about the benefits of free-writing, where you just get the story down as fast as you can – no editing, no re-reading, just go. I’ve heard several authors praise this process, saying it frees them up and allows them to get down sentences they’d never have come up with if they analysed and agonised. However you go about it, the important thing you need to focus on is writing what you want to write. You’ve read lots, you’ve written a heap, you know, instinctively, what it is you want to do. So just do it, trust in yourself and block out any other influences in your mind – write like you’re just doing a story for your friends, no one else. Write like no one will ever see it, if that helps.

Success or failure depends so much on our mental approach. The thing to remember is, everyone is human. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone mis-steps – no one knows everything. You are just as good as anyone else, you can achieve whatever you want. Definitely, you need to work for it, you need to work at it and build your skills, but if you’ve done the preparation, if you’ve done the research and you know what it is you’re trying to achieve, then the only thing holding you back is you.

How would you write if the end result didn’t matter? If no one cared, if no one was going to judge you or your work? At some point, it will matter, you’ll need to edit and refine – but at the first stage, it can help to alleviate the self-doubt and blocks if you write as freely as possible. Don’t think about where it might go next, don’t think about publishing or competitions. Write instinctively, like you’d have done when you were a kid. Relieve the pressure and expectation and might just open yourself up enough to produce your best work.

 

The Power of the Mind (and How to Use it to Your Advantage)

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It’s amazing how much your mental state can influence every element of your being. People can convince themselves of almost anything, can think themselves into having heart attacks – their thoughts manifesting themselves in physical form. I’ve seen people held totally captive by their own thoughts, crippled with fear and anxiety and absolutely unable to see things any other way. Their minds have been made up, and once that happens, it can be a very hard thing to change.

I read an article about something similar recently, about how our minds can be tricked into seeing one thing or another in an optical illusion – but once our mind is made up on what we see, it’s almost impossible to change it back and see it another way. It highlights how easy it is for our brains to get locked onto one path and how hard it can be for people to break from that and change their perspective. We always see the worst of ourselves, we always see weaknesses and flaws and imperfections that might be totally oblivious to anyone else. Skin care company Dove ran an advertising campaign based around this very notion, that what we see is not how we’re seen by others. This is never more clearly evident than seeing someone in the midst of depression. The way they see life, the hopelessness they feel, it’s an all encompassing thing. They can’t see out of that tunnel they’re in, can’t see anything there for them to cling to. No matter how you try to tell them otherwise, their minds are locked. It’s scary to see, a heartbreaking thing to witness, and I feel for anyone whose ever been afflicted by such all encompassing sadness.

This is something that affects many writers. We can easily get locked into the idea that we’re no good, that our writing will never be good enough. We’ll read work by other authors and just feel so small, so distant from that level of quality that it can seem like all hope is lost. But what you’re seeing in your work is not necessarily what everyone else reads. Just like an optical illusion, there’s another side that you’re tricking yourself out of, another way of seeing it that you just can’t get your head around. But if you try, if you push yourself, there might be a way. If your brain is strong enough to totally convince you of one thing, why can’t it be trained to also convince you of the opposite?

This is a great challenge for anyone, to convince your brain to look at things from another perspective. Very few people are able to see things from other vantage points, but that’s something we, as fiction writers, do all the time. We see stories from the perspective of other characters, you just need to do that in real life, with your own work, from time to time. Definitely, you need to be objective – writing is a solitary pursuit and most of the time you’re your number one critic, so you need to keep that edge, you can’t go too easy on yourself. But just ask yourself ‘why not?’ Why can’t you do this? Make your brain see it differently and think ‘why can’t I write great literature?’ If you can convince yourself that you can, it makes it easier to commit yourself to the necessary work you’ll need to do to make it happen.

Writing takes self-motivation, you need a level of positivity and belief to push yourself. But you also need to get your work out there, you need to take the feedback you get – some of it won’t be good, but you need to push through and take in the benefits of negative feedback also. It’s not to say you should convince yourself that you’re always right, it’s that you need to take it easy on yourself, don’t see things from the negative point of view all the time, take on any notes and feedback and keep pushing on. Because why can’t you do it? Why not you?

The human brain is a powerful thing, if you can keep it from getting locked into any one way of thinking, you can remain open to all possibilities. And in that state, anything can happen, even things you’ve convinced yourself will only ever be in dream.

 

For my Mother

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My brothers and sister (as a baby)

My mum grew up in harder times. Everyone’s did, I guess. My mum was one of seven kids, but she was different to the others. Where her sisters were into horse riding and were more outgoing, my Mum was quieter, liked books and reading, more solitary activities. Her Dad left when she was young, but Mum never really talked about this, never complained or lamented the loss. It was just something that happened, then they got on with life. Mum loved writing as a young girl, and that lead her towards a career in admin – Mum did a course at secretarial college and started work, but that job was short lived. She met my Dad soon after that, just after he’d returned from Vietnam, then they had my brother. This was a natural progression – she left her job, took on the role of full-time Mum and continued on as she had to. Mum’s career took a backseat and all her ambitions and dreams transferred to us, me and my brother. A few years later she had my younger brother, then my sister, setting her up to spend the majority of her active years changing nappies, washing clothes, driving to school, driving to sports, picking us up from friends’ places and making us meals. Mum never complained, never lamented what her life had become. She just did it. That’s what you do.

As we grew up and started moving on, my Dad got sick. After serving in Vietnam he became a transit security officer, kicking drunks off trains and such. After a particularly violent incident Mum told him enough was enough and he became an ambulance officer. And now, many years later, too much exposure to the worst of life had taken it’s toll. He couldn’t sleep, he was prone to fits of rage. He’d hit the lowest of lows. He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. This meant he couldn’t work, he’d be living on a pension for the rest of his life. And he’d need a carer. Mum took on this role, an extension, to some degree, of being a parent – as her kids grew up and moved on, Mum took on similar responsibilities for Dad. Mum never complained, just continued on. This was the hand she’d been dealt, this was how things were. You just get on with it.

My Mum is one of the most selfless, caring, understanding, tolerant and beautiful people you will ever meet. She rarely has a bad word to say about anyone (if she does, you must’ve really annoyed her) and she takes whetever life deals her and just gets on with it. No complaints. She has given her life to her family, and I have no doubt, she’d do exactly the same again in a heartbeat.

Mum loved writing. While she never had the opportunity to realise her dreams of becoming a writer, I did. And every time I have something published or I win an award – every time I have any sort of writing success, I feel like she has too. It’s not just me that’s succeeded, I carry her dreams with me – my achievements are hers. Mum followed the path that was set out for her based on her gender and ambition at the time, and she never had the chance to be all she might have wanted to be. But through me, with me, I hope I’ve been able to make her proud. And I hope I’ve been able to realise some of her ambitions, the dreams she might have had – those ones that took a backseat to her giving up everything for her family.

Love you Mum.

 

Iggy Azalea and the Importance of Cultural Participation

 

Have you heard of Iggy Azalea? She’s a statuesque rapper who’s album recently debuted at number three on the US Billboard charts. She’s also Australian, though she’s not as well known here as she is in the US. Azalea (who’s real name is Amethyst Kelly) made her name in America after moving there to pursue her rap dreams at age 16. Azalea grew up in Mullumbimby in New South Wales but saw that her opportunities were limited in her home town, and home country as a whole. She decided that if she was ever going to make it, she’d need to head overseas – and the story of her success flows from there.

Azalea caught my attention recently when I read her story about leaving Australia. I could see what she was saying, could sympathise with the situation she faced. Here she was, obsessed with Tupac and desperate to be a female rap superstar, but living in a country town where others didn’t take her seriously and her opportunities for exposure were limited. While Azalea was referring to the music industry, the same can be said about writing to some degree, in that our creative culture, particularly our creative diversity, is not overly strong. In my conversations with international writers, and in the brief times I’ve spent in foreign cities, I’ve definitely felt that there’s a much bigger emphasis on creative arts and culture in other nations. Not everywhere, but in some places there is a distinct artistic undercurrent, a feel to it, and those creative communities are strong, visible and well supported. The sad reality of not having such a strong culture is that many writers end up in isolation, unsure if there’s an audience for their work or how to find it. What’s more, writers’ groups are often hard to locate and some writers are hesitant to join if they feel they’ve done nothing, like they won’t fit in.

This is not the fault of any person or group, I realise many arts organisations work very hard (and have done so for a long time) to create communities and provide writers with opportunities to join like-minded folk, but definitely my experience of larger cultural centres like London, New York, Seattle, even Vancouver, is that there’s a much bigger creative pulse, or at least, a more present one. Things like spoken word poetry have a real sense of purpose in these cities, a real pride of place, and while we do have similar communities in Melbourne, they’re much smaller, more underground – you have to be more active in seeking them out.

So what do we do about it? What can we do to foster a better literary culture and highlight opportunities for writers of all genres and styles? The answer is we all have to get involved. Joining a writers’ group is not just for your own benefit, it’s for the benefit of the wider writing community. Attending book launches, readings, spoken word events, joining discussions at your local writers’ centre – just being present and supporting these projects helps build that literary community and enhances recognition, making them easier to find. By taking part, you’re not only participating in something you’re interested in, you’re also endorsing that community, building it, helping create a wider network. This promotes more opportunities for writers to connect, which then leads to more niche writers finding others who feel the same. The rise of social media helps in this respect, as it enables people to find communities outside their geographic limitations, but it’s also important that we establish these groups locally, that we build support and acceptance for the various forms of written expression in order to create our own networks and our own localised culture.

We also need to recognise the passion and dedication that goes into all forms of writing. I’ve got little interest in the work of Matthew Reilly, but I respect the man greatly. I could go and hear him speak and get a heap out of it, regardless of whether I’ve read a line of his work. All writers have made a commitment, an effort that’s above and beyond what they have to do. We’re all in it together – we need to support each other in order to create a stronger literary eco-system, a stronger community that gives voice to more writers who might not have the confidence to ever release their efforts from their notebooks. Maybe we have writers who, like Iggy Azalea, are very talented at what they do, but they feel like there’s no chance for them – there’s no chance a female rapper could achieve significant success in Australia. That was a really sad sentiment for me to hear, and most teenagers in the same boat won’t have the tenacity to move to another nation to chase it. They’ll just give up. We have to do whatever we can to stop that, to embolden more voices and give them the confidence to chase their creative dreams, whatever they may be.

Writing events are about more than people trying to sell their books and in-crowd meet-ups. It’s about community, being part of something bigger. You have to go along to events and get involved wherever you can. Talk to people, tweet about it, tell others where you are and what you’re doing, introduce yourself – and I know it can be hard sometimes to go and get involved (my default position in such situations is ‘wall flower’) but it’s what you need to do, not only so we get to hear your voice as a writer, but so other writers, young writers especially, see what you’re doing and know they can get involved too. Writers are welcoming types, we all want to know more about the world and the people in it. We need to ensure that that openness remains part of our culture so we can encourage a stronger literary bonds and continue to see great writing emerge. So our stories remain as diverse as our society and an accurate reflection of our full creative capacity.

 

Best Australian Blogs 2014 – WINNER

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twenty six has taken out the ‘Words and Writing’ category in the Australian Writers’ Centre Best Australian Blogs 2014 Competition. Massive news, seriously humbled, overwhelmed, excited. Really great – it was a solid list of nominees in the category and I would’ve been happy to lose out to any of them. Glad the judges saw merit in my work, and also, want to take the opportunity to thank the subscribers and others who’ve read my posts – writing is always pretty solitary, and you never know for sure if you’re getting it right. Recognition like this is always a massive boost – thanks so much, all.

What Writers Can Learn from The Streets

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At one stage, I was a really big fan of The Streets. For those unfamiliar, ‘The Streets’ was the stage name of British cockney rapper Mike Skinner. Skinner became known on the back of his excellent debut album ‘Original Pirate Material’ and the single ‘Weak Become Heroes’.

There was nothing technically amazing about The Streets’ music – the beats are somewhat generic, the almost spoken word vocal delivery is not immediately stand-out. What Skinner was able to do better than most was capture a moment in time. Every song on Original Pirate Material had a feel to it, a vivid sense of time and place. You could smell the rain soaked concrete, feel the breeze pushing past along the London streets. Skinner was more storyteller than rapper, and no one could tell a story in quite the same way.

He reinforced this with his second, and by far most popular, album, ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’. If you’ve not heard this album, I highly recommend you go check it out, particularly if you’re a writer. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a concept album – Skinner documents his entire relationship with his ex-girlfriend from start to finish, stretching from track to track. We share the elation and excitement of the beginning, the complacent beauty of normality, then the sadness of the eventual end. Every element is so familiar, so real, and each track carries an emotional depth and resonance, made all the better by Skinner’s knack for capturing the moment. There’s a section in one track, when his girlfriend is breaking up with him, that just hurts so much:

I can change and I can grow or we could adjust
The wicked thing about us is we always have trust
We can even have an open relationship, if you must
I look at her she stares almost straight back at me
But her eyes glaze over like she’s lookin’ straight through me
Then her eyes must have closed for what seems an eternity
When they open up she’s lookin’ down at her feet

There’s the desperation – we can have an open relationship if that will keep you with me – then the realisation that it’s all over, told in Skinner’s unique, simple style. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is more akin to reading a novel than listening to an album, it needs to be experienced from beginning to end to fully appreciate it’s excellence.

the-hardest-way-to-make-an-easy-living

Things changed by the third album. While his clear strength was in telling stories to which we could all relate, the success of A Grand Don’t Come for Free meant his life totally changed. He’d become a full fledged celebrity, regularly appearing in tabloids and gossip mags, holding hands with this or that pop starlet, hanging out at VIP events. His success ultimately turned his strength into weakness – he was still writing about his life like always, we could just no longer relate. The album ‘The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living’ had some classic Streets moments, but it wasn’t the same. The title track had Skinner lamenting the many downsides of fame, like the costs of making music videos and complications of putting on stage shows. These were real things, real issues that he was experiencing, but it was pretty hard for listeners to align with the view that his career, which had granted him massive amounts of cash and seen him invited to perform all over the world – all while doing what he loved – that the downsides to that lifestyle could be all that bad. Another track looks at the difficulties of picking up famous women – again, something he’d experienced, but the difference between his reality and the listener’s created a gap, a distance from the material. It once again highlighted that The Streets’s appeal was more in story than in music, and Skinner experienced a significant drop-off in fan support as a result.

He was never able to fully recover after that – Skinner released two more albums under The Streets’ moniker, ‘Everything is Borrowed’ (on which, Skinner pledged not to reference modern life on any of the tracks, a response to criticism of the previous album) and ‘Computers and Blues’. As with The Hardest Way to Make and Easy Living, there are some great moments on both of these albums (and Skinner’s musical ability increases markedly through each), but he’d lost that edge, that storytelling dynamic that made his work so great. A mixture of life changes and criticism seemed to pretty much kill off The Streets as a project, which Skinner acknowledged by retiring the name after his fifth full-length release.

The story of The Streets highlights one of the inherent dangers of fame – the more successful you are, the higher the risk you can lose touch with your audience. But above that, Skinner’s story highlights one very important element for writers that can often be overlooked. The strength of The Streets was that it told Skinner’s story, from his perspective. And that was perfect, it was real, something with which we could all relate. The rise of Mike Skinner highlights the fact that you don’t need explosions or car chases to gain an audience. Your experience, your viewpoint on life, no one has that but you – that unique insight is interesting. A story doesn’t have to be exciting or amazing to be resonant. A key strength of storytelling is honesty, capturing the feeling of the moment in an honest and real way. In Skinner’s case, those common life experiences were far more resonant than the fast-paced world of being a rock star – that’s not to say his experiences with fame were any less honest, but his story was so much stronger when we could be part of it, when we could all relate and share in the familiarity of those moments.

People relate to what they know and understand, they need a way into the narrative. Even if your story is sci-fi or fantasy, we still need to be able to connect with the stakes, understand the emotion of each scene. The development of flesh and bone characters is critical, and those characters are borne from your knowledge of real people, real situations. Writing is about exposing yourself, sharing what you’ve felt in similar circumstance, creating the experience of being there, in the moment. You need real relationships with your characters, real emotions, those are the details that fuel the connections in the reader’s mind – the more readers can relate, the more they’ll be drawn in. Keeping it real, keeping it familiar, capturing experiences based on your unique perspective, this is how you develop fully rounded characters. This is how you share not just words with your readers, but experiences and create real life within the confines of the fictional page.

 

One Chance

Potts

I recently watched the film ‘One Chance’, a film based on the life of British mobile phone salesman turned opera star Paul Potts. If you’re not aware of who Potts is, he won the 2007 iteration of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ after he blew everyone away with his pitch perfect performances on the show, the first one, in particular, gathering him worldwide attention.

Like Susan Boyle, Potts is a poster-child for the talent show format – an unknown, unrecognised talent plucked from obscurity and given a chance to shine on TV’s biggest stage. There seems to be one of these stories in every season of these shows, and they are great – I challenge anyone to remain unmoved by Potts’ initial performance (above), where the judges had clearly expected way less from this unconfident, overweight and plain-looking gent standing before them. Potts’ rise to fame is probably the most successful transition of it’s kind, given Boyle’s challenges with fame ever since. It’s a great story that deserves to be told, and ‘One Chance’ is a solid film, though not quite as good as it had the potential to be.

The main issue I had with the film was the portrayal was a little too light. That was intended, they wanted to hit as wide a demographic as possible, so it needed to be a feelgood film, but the greatest aspect of Potts’ rise was encapsulated in that first performance – you could see in his body language and the expression on his face, this was a man who’d been kicked one too many times. He’d lost faith in himself, in everything, you could see that he was bracing himself for more anguish. I didn’t feel the film truly captured this, the defeated nature that Potts exhibited – James Corden, who plays Potts, was very good, but he couldn’t quite capture that uncomfortable nature exhibited by Potts in real life. This was the key reason why Potts’ story was so great, because you could see that he’d almost given up – but then he won. It’s a great example of persistence in doing what you love in the face of constant opposition.

But the key message I took from the film was the importance of having support from your loved ones in what you do. All through the film, Potts’ dad is telling him to give up on his dreams of being a singer, to face reality and get on with life like everyone else. There’s a scene where he’s really down, where nothing’s going his way and his wife realises that if he can no longer hold onto the dream of being a performer, that he really sees no point to his life. It’s part of who he is, he needs to do it, needs to hold onto it in some way or he just falls flat, lays on the couch, gives up. I think that’s true in everything – if you’re not true to yourself and not pursuing what you’re passionate about, at least in some form, your life purpose can be eclipsed, and you face a dreary reality of just being, just doing what you have to do. A life of obligation more than exploration of being alive. That’s no way to be, you always need to keep searching for what makes you happy, what drives you as a person, and you need to keep chasing it – sure, there’s certain things you have to accept, and yes, you’ll probably have to work a job that’s not exactly aligned with your dream path, but as long as you continue to pursue your passions in some form, as long as you have the support of people close to you to do that, that’s a big key to maintaining balance. And the moments of clarity you can get from pursuing your dreams make all the effort worthwhile. People should never give up on chasing what it is they’re most passionate about. Everyone has something.

And as a parent, it also underlined to me the need to support your kids in everything they do. If they feel strongly about something, parents need to be supportive, foster it as much as they can. Your mother and father have a profound influence on your psychological make-up, just having them back you, being aware that they’ll be behind you no matter what, it’s such a huge pillar of strength. It can change your life. My parents have always been supportive of me, and while there are certain realities we have to face, I’ve always known they’re behind me and they’ll be there for me, no matter how unrealistic my goals. Knowing that I’ve made them proud at certain times has been one of the most emotionally moving experiences of my life.

Stick with what you love, find that thing that makes you happy, and surround yourself with people who won’t ask ‘why?’, but ‘why not?’. It’s one of the keys to maintaining happiness in life and feeling complete in everything you do.